I visited an offbeat coffee-making hotspot that could save the industry -- here's what it was like

On a recent tour of the Costa Rican coffee farm where he volunteers as a tour guide, Felix Salazar poured out a cup of the inky, aromatic brew and asked me to wait for what he called “the bite.”

Within seconds after I took a sip, the coffee’s initial sweet flavour gave way to a deeper, tangy taste that left me wanting more.

I’m not alone. Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, and its active ingredient — caffeine — is currently the most popular psychoactive drug on the planet.

But coffee is in trouble.

According to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the world’s largest coffee-producing regions could shrink by as much as 88% by 2050 as a result of climate change. The study is the first of its kind to look at how bees — key coffee crop pollinators — will be impacted by a warmer planet.

While the vast majority of coffee-making hotspots in South America will be decimated by climate change, some countries may be spared, according to the new analysis. One of those countries is Costa Rica. Here’s what it’s like to make coffee in the country.

The region of Monteverde, where a lot of Costa Rica's coffee is grown, is a misty, cloud-enshrined area about three hours from San Jose, the capital. The humid, shady climate is ideal for growing coffee plants, but the drive to reach it can be a challenge if you're not familiar with the roads.

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Here's a snapshot from my recent drive to Cafe Monteverde, a coffee farm in Costa Rica.

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I was introduced to the coffee farm by Felix Salazar (left), a nature photographer born and raised in Monteverde who also works on the farm and gives tours in his free time. Felix walked me through the rolling green fields where the coffee for Cafe Monteverde is grown.

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Most of Cafe Monteverde's coffee comes from Coffea arabica plants, which account for roughly 75% of the world's coffee. Here's a shot of the many rows of coffee plants, which are interspersed with corn and other crops to help cycle nutrients through the soil.

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The first cultivated C. arabica plants came from the southwestern highland forests of Ethiopia. Now rare to their native region, the plants are instead found instead all over the world, from Africa and South America to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Here, farmers are growing tiny seedlings to study the plants' growth.

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Nearly all the coffee we drink today began with a few wild Ethiopian plants. This means the current coffee crop lacks genetic diversity, something that makes it highly susceptible to climate change. If one strain can't cope with warmer climes, the others will follow suit and wither.

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Source: 'Saving coffee,' 'Scientific American'

When coffee cherries ripen, they turn from bright green to differing shades of yellow, red, and purple. Farmers, many of whom earn as little as $1.50 for each full basket they pick, gather the cherries.

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Source: 'Coffee's Economics, Rewritten by Farmers,' 'The New York Times'

Several initiatives, including Fairtrade (logo spotted on a sign shown below), aim to address this problem by using a certification process to ensure workers earn more. In exchange, it sells the coffee to consumers at slightly higher prices.

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Sources: Fairtrade International and Lonely Planet Costa Rica

While coffee and bees are both at risk across South America, according to the new study, other areas -- including Costa Rica, Columbia, Guatemala, and Mexico -- may be spared. These regions may even experience a slight increase in coffee suitability thanks to their mountainous terrain, the researchers found.

After the coffee cherries are picked, they get washed, dried, and roasted.

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Using one processing method, workers separate the coffee bean from the cherry it's encased in, revealing the sticky, sweet inner coating. Semi-dry processing is also called 'honey processing' -- because the beans have a sticky, wet consistency like honey.

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Once the cherry is separated from the bean, the beans are gathered in large bins and stored before being roasted to increase their flavour.

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After they are roasted, the beans are either ground and packaged or sold as whole beans and then ground in a grinder, like the one shown below. Salazar ground the coffee for us at the farm's kitchen, and filled the room with a sweet, slightly spicy aroma.

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Salazar prepared the coffee using a French press. After spooning the grounds into the press, pouring boiling water over them, and stirring, he let our coffee sit and brew for 5-10 minutes.

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Next, he gently pressed the coffee grounds, finishing off the coffee and stopping the brewing process, and poured our brew into some sampling cups.

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Finally, we drank. The coffee was sweet and delicious, but had a slightly tangy and acidic aftertaste, something Salazar called a 'bite.'

Erin Brodwin / Business Insider

It's possible that this country may be one of the last holdouts for coffee and climate change begins to decimate coffee crop populations in much of South America. So drink up -- while it lasts.

Erin Brodwin/Business Insider

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